My Sweetheart Went Down with the Maine
DESCRIPTION: "Once I had a sweetheart, noble, brave, and true... Out on the high seas he sailed... Anchored at Havana... Down went the Maine.... Rouse ye, my countrymen, rouse... Strike down the cowardly fiends Who slaughtered the crew of the Maine."
AUTHOR: Bert Morgan (source: sheet music published by The Morgan Music Company available at New York Public Library)
EARLIEST DATE: 1898 (copyright date in the sheet music)
KEYWORDS: disaster ship death love separation
1895 - Cubans rebel against Spain
Feb 15, 1898 - Explosion of the battleship "Maine" in Havana harbor
April 25, 1898 - Congress declares war on Spain
FOUND IN: US(SE,So)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Randolph 689, "My Sweetheart Went Down with the Maine" (1 text)
High-OldOldFolkSongs, p. 7, "The Battle-Ship-Main" (1 text)
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 236, "The Battleship Maine" (2 texts)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4 236, "The Battleship Maine" (2 excerpts, 2 tunes)
cf. "Did the Maine Go Down?" (theme)
cf. "On the Shores of Havana" (theme)
cf. "Down in the Harbor of Havana" (theme)
cf. "The Spanish War" (theme)
cf. "Manila Bay" (theme)
cf. "Battleship of Maine" (theme)
cf. "Marching to Cuba" (theme)
NOTES [3000 words]: The U. S. S. Maine, it should be noted, was not exactly a battleship, although often called that (including in songs); originally designed as an armored cruiser, she lacked the coal capacity for that role (just 896 tons; Newhart, p. 14; Blow, p. 76, claims that gave her a range of 7000 miles, but that's hard to believe, and Herder, p. 21, says her range was 3600 nautical miles at 10 knots, which wouldn't even let her cross the Pacific). She wound up as an unsatisfactory battleship/cruiser hybrid or "second class battleship."
The design problems shouldn't surprise us; the American navy had essentially been shut down after the Civil War, and she was one of the first ships -- indeed, the first large ship -- coming out of the naval revival of the 1880s. The 1860s and 1870s had been a time of intense naval evolution; no one in the United States knew how to design a modern ship! (Weems, pp. 4-5). Indeed, the Americans bought the design for the Maine's contemporary, the battleship Texas, from the British! (Herder, pp. 21-22), but the Maine was a home-grown attempt.
Laid down in 1888, she had decent speed -- 17 knots -- and four 10" guns, plus decent armor (Paine, p. 320. Note, however, that the American navy was still using gunpowder at the time, not more modern propellants, so a 10" gun packed less punch than a 10" gun of World War I vintage. Contemporary American battleships had 13" guns and were intended to make 16 knots; contemporary cruisers were usually expected to manage 21-22 knots. So Maine was too lightweight for the battle line and too slow to function as a cruiser even if you ignore her lack of range.
In addition, the layout of the guns was obsolete, and she had a worthless ram bow. Originally intended to carry a sailing rig to giver her a decent range despite her lack of coal capacity (Herder, p. 17), her design was revised in 1892 to eliminate it, and it wasn't until 1895 that she was finished (Weems, p. 4) -- a ridiculously long time that showed how much the navy had to learn about shipbuilding (so, for example, the first real American battleship, the Indiana, was laid down two and a half years later, but was commissioned just two months later because the Maine took so long; Newhart, pp. 14, 17). And her forwardmost coal bunkers were literally inaccessible when she had a full load of coal (Weems, p. 104); if by some chance the coal got hot or was exposed to flame, it might be the end of her (although this was apparently not an issue when she blew up, because she had used up the coal that blocked the way to those forward bunkers)....
"Her original designation was Armored Cruiser No. 1.... Reclassified as a second class battleship, shorn of sails, the Maine now fit uneasily into any categoy. She was too lightly armored for a true battleship, but carried heavier guns than any cruiser. Outdated when commissioned, she weighed [i.e. displaced] just 6,682 tons, much less hefty than foreign battleships. She was the Navy's second battleship, the first being the British-designed Texas. The arrangements of her guns, which the two ships had in common, was unusual. The forward turret with its big pair of 10-inch guns was mounted to starboard of the centerline, while the matching after turret was to port. The Maine also mounted six 6-inch guns and a baker's dozen of smaller guns" (Leeke, p. 24). The odd turret layout was an old Italian idea which had been intended to let all four guns fire in any direction, but it didn't work -- the guns damaged the ship when they fired across the deck. As a result, the Maine's guns actually had more limited arcs of fire than standard designs. They also had to be lowered because the original design had too much topweight (Herder, p. 20). As Herder comments on p. 20, her long gestation meant that she was out of date by the time she was commissioned!
She was also very "wet," had poor balance because of the off-center heavy turrets, and had bad sea-keeping (Herder, p. 22); this poor design made her relatively slow despite her long, narrow form (Texas, despite heaver guns and a broader beam, was actually faster -- more evidence of American lack of design knowledge).
She was really too fragile to be good for much, and she was known in the navy as a "Jonah" ship (Blow, p. 135), but she looked impressive. Still, if the Americans had wanted a ship that they could lose without it really costing their navy anything, she was the ship....
Her captain, Charles G. Sigsbee, was distinguished, but not so much for his naval work -- although he had been a navy man for more than a third of a century -- but for oceanography and hydrography; he had explored the Gulf of Mexico with biologist Alexander Agassiz. He also held several patents. He was not very experienced with a large, modern ship (Blow, pp. 133-134; Leeke, p. 23).
When the Cubans rose in revolt against inept and brutal Spanish rule, the U.S. government -- spurred on by William Randolph Hearst's newspapers -- decided it should be involved. Without going too deeply into either the Cuban rebellion, the Spanish attempts to suppress it, or the American politics of the period, suffice it to say that many Americans wanted Cuba to have autonomy (Trask, p. 28). When the Spanish continued to repress the Cubans, the Americans decided to be prepared to intervene. The Maine was sent to Key West, where she could steam to Havana in just a few hours (Trask, p. 24). Initially the idea was to keep her in American waters, waiting for a signal from the American diplomats in Cuba. When there appeared to be trouble in Cuba, Consul General Fitzhugh Lee (yes, the former Confederate general who was Robert E. Lee's nephew) called for the ship, then changed his mind -- but the ship went, on what was officially listed as a courtesy visit (Trask, pp. 24-25; Weems, pp. 46-47). Once she was there, Lee wanted her to stay until a ship of at least equal power could arrive (Trask, p. 26).
The Maine arrived in Havana on January 25, 1898 (Trask, p. 25), and stayed for some time, ready to potentially evacuate Americans -- or attack the Spanish. Her officers also visited with the Cubans, in proper diplomatic form; everyone seemed to be getting along well. "During the entire visit the officers and crew of the Maine never slackened their vigilance [keeping unusually large crews on duty at all time to watch for trouble]... however, no one had any indication that precautions were actually necessary" (Weems, p. 59, although Blow, p. 34, mentions a poster that circulated showing the ship being blown up). She kept an unusually heavy watch for a ship at anchor -- a quarter watch, i.e. a quarter of her crew were ready for duty at all times; she also kept watertight doors closed -- and enough steam up to power her turrets (Blow, p. 26).
Then... she blew up with a large loss of life. The explosion took place on the port side forward, near where the crew quarters were, so many of the enlisted men were killed at once, or at least unable to escape (Weems, p. 73). This probably helps explain the line in the song about the singer's sweetheart being peacefully asleep in his hammock when he died; this was indeed the fate of many of the victims.
There were secondary explosions, and the ship caught fire. Possibly more men could have been rescued had it not been for this. Only three of the ship's boats (out of fifteen) were usable (Weems, p 83), but other ships came to the aid of the bewildered crew.
It is believed that 26 officers and 328 men were serving on her when she blew up (although four of the officers were not on the ship at the time); of these, 252 were dead or missing, and eight more were recovered alive but would die of their injuries (Weems, p. 94).
Captain Sigsbee seems to have behaved in a very responsible way. Once he was on another boat and could send messages, he reported both to the Secretary of the Navy and to his immediate supervisor, requesting tenders to bring supplies and clothing -- and suggesting that no one draw premature conclusions: "Public opinion should be suspended until further report" (Weems, p. 92). He would soon change his mind, however, and suggest that the Maine had been mined (Weems, p. 97), although he still allowed that the explosion itself might be an accident.
Divers went to the hulk to recover her codebooks, and learned, with some difficulty, that the keys to her magazine were still in place, so it didn't appear the explosion was caused by the deliberate actions of someone on board (Weems, p. 101).
On February 21, an American investigation board arrived, led by Captain William T. Sampson, soon to be made an admiral and to command one of the forces that fought the Spanish fleet (Weems, p. 102). Witnesses from aboard the Maine disagreed about whether there was one explosion or two, but observers elsewhere all reported two (Weems, p. 110), which must have meant that the first explosion, of unknown origin and location, set off either coal dust or the forward 6" magazine, probably the latter. (The magazines for the main guns did not go up, or the explosion would have been even worse.) The divers who visited the ship also claimed that there was a hole in her hull where the metal bend inward, not outward (Blow, p. 143). This was based on what they felt, not what they saw (apparently they didn't ever really get lights down there), so the evidence was very dubious -- but the American investigators concluded that this meant that the first explosion had been outside the hull. In other words, that she had been mined (Weems, pp. 123-124). On the other hand, the few survivors who had been on the deck at the time of the explosion did not report a waterspout or water landing on the deck, nor were there reports of dead fish (Weems, p. 126).
Also, the Spanish had had no warning of the Maine's arrival, so there was no time to plant a mine in advance, and the ship kept careful watch while in Havana, so it would have been hard to plant a mine after she arrived (Weems, p. 128).
One thing that is perhaps of importance is that the Maine, although she never left her berth, did not stay in the same place the whole time. She was moored to the berth, but apparently her other end was not anchored, so se moved around. At different times, she covered different spots on the harbor bottom. So a timed mine could not be sure of getting her; either some person -- unknown and unidentified -- would have to set off the mine (perhaps electrically, from a distance) or it would have to be a contact mine. No sign of either was ever found.
The Spanish also ordered an investigation. Apparently neither side cooperated with the other's investigation; the Americans wouldn't let Spaniards onto the hulk, and the Spaniards wouldn't let the Americans examine the harbour (Blow, p. 118). The Spanish inquiry disagreed with the idea of a mine, but other than rowing around the harbor, they couldn't examine the ship; they just talked to their own witnesses (Weems, pp. 124-125).
And even if there had been a mine, that didn't prove whether the Spanish or the insurgents had set off the mine.
The American commission finally concluded that the first explosion had been external, not internal, although it could not determine who had set the (presumed) bomb (Blow, p. 167).
No account was taken of the fact that the Spanish had nothing to gain from blowing up the Maine; if the crime had been discovered, then the war they had been trying so hard to avoid would of course be inevitable, and even if they got away with it, if war still came, getting rid of a rather feeble ship wouldn't improve the odds for their navy significantly.
Not that Hearst and his minions cared about the result of the investigation. Never mind that the Spanish had nothing to gain from destroying the ship. Spain had to be punished! The newspapers demanded it, with Hearst famously writing to Frederic Remington when the latter wanted to come home from Cuba, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war" (Weems, p. viii).
The Spanish did all they could to avoid war; after brief delays to save face, they gave in to every American demand. The Americans would have none of it -- even though many responsible Americans were unsure that their small armed forces could win (Trask, p. 30). McKinley too was afraid of the consequences of war -- he suffered so badly from insomnia in this period that he had to start taking sleep drugs and developed dark circles under his eyes (Phillips, p. 94). He had a point, too -- even if you ignore the morality of it all, Spain had a half-million-man army (Weems, p. 129), while the United States had only a few regiments it used to oppress Native Americans. The United States was the more populous country, but it could not hope to win a purely land campaign. A naval campaign was another matter.
And McKinley had to worry about the way the American people were responding, too. They -- or, at least, the majority of loudmouths who expressed an opinion -- wanted war. By March, McKinley demanded that Spain agree to an armistice with the Cuban insurgents (Trask, pp. 40-41). On April 11, the Americans ran out of patience as the Spanish tried to give in without giving in too far; McKinley asked Congress to let him intervene in Cuba (Trask, p. 52). "Some two months [after the explosion] came the Spanish-American War, which was to mark the final collapse of the Spanish Empire and the emergence of the United States as a world power.... Cuba, Guam, the Philippie Archipelago, Puerto Rico, and all other Spanish islands in the West Indies were ceded to the United States, which then entertained fond hopes for an empire of its own" (Weems, p. vii).
On April 11, President McKinley asked for a declaration of war; on April 25, he received it. Americans set out to "free" Cuba and the Philippines. (The Philippines, in particular, were so thoroughly "freed" that they soon rose in revolt and did not achieve independence until 1947.) "Remember the Maine," went the battle cry.
The U.S. army was pitifully bad; the vast majority of its losses in the war were caused by disease and supply problems -- but so dreadful were the Spanish forces that by the end of the summer both the Philippines and Cuba were under U.S. control. In December the Spanish were forced to accept the humiliating Treaty of Paris, and the war ended. The U.S. was now an imperialist power -- and all because of songs like this one and Hearst's headlines.
The cause of the Maine's explosion was never definitely determined. The Navy's initial investigation, led by Captain William T. Sampson (who later led the fleet that beat the Spanish fleet outside Havaa), blamed an underwater mine although it could not say who put it there (Trask, p. 35; Paine, p. 321). The Spanish felt it was an internal explosion. When the ship was raised in 1910-1911, the Americans again concluded it was an external explosion, although they revised their opinion of where it happened (Weems, p. 157) -- and then hauled the wreck away and sank it in deep water, making further examinations difficult. Weems, in 1958, could only "conclude that there is a good chance that the ship did blow up internally despite signs to the contrary. In any event, the explosion must have been an accident, even if an outside force caused it" (Weems, p. 178). A 1975 investigation, with little new data but more engineering knowledge, concluded "the available evidence is consistent with an internal explosion alone.... The most likely source was heat from a fire in the coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine" (Paine, p. 321); this convinced Hyman Rickover, who commissioned the study (Blow, pp. 431-433), but Blow himself considers the result "conjectural and inconclusive" (p. 434, although he seems to think an internal explosion the likeliest explanation); on p. 437 he declares that it will be "forever unsolved." Leeke, p. 35, agrees that certainty is now impossible. Yet Trask, p. 35, says that "it is now almost certainly believed that the Spanish view [that the explosion was internal] was correct." Captain Sigsbee himself wrote, "without more conclusive evidence than we have now [in 1899] we are not right if we charge criminality to persons" (Weems, p. viii). Herder, p. 33, makes the significant point that the Maine was using cheap bituminous coal, which sometimes emitted methane or other flammable gases. He concludes, "The most accepted theory by modern historians is that a smoldering coal bunker detonated Maine's adjacent bow magazine.
Given the Maine's poor design, we certainly should at least be open to the possibility that the explosion was the fault of Americans, not Spanish or Cubans. But if modern politics teaches us anything, it's that facts don't matter in mob politics!
That the event was costly for Americans, though, is certainly true. The Maine's Captain Sigsbee would write after the war, "During the recent war with Spain about seventy-five men were killed in the United States Navy. Only seventeen [of them] were killed. On board the Maine 252 men were killed outright and eight died later" (Weems, p. ix). Thus the Maine explosion cost the Navy far more than the entire rest of the war combined!
Songwriter Bert Morgan was apparently based in Macomb, Illinois, and the headnote to the song says that this was inspired by the story of a young woman ("Miss Frances N--) in Illinois who lost her intended husband in the disaster. The sheet music does not state which city the man was from, but I saw a claim online that he was from *southern* Illinois. According to the list on pp. 185-196 of Weems, there were nine sailors from Illinois on the Maine, but six were from Chicago and two others were from the northern part of the state (La Salle County and the town of Ottawa). That leaves only one from southern Illinois: Coal Passer John Matza of East Saint Louis, who was among the dead in the wreck (Weems, p. 192). - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Blow: Michael Blow, A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War, William Morrow and Company, 1992
- Herder: Brian Lane Herder, US Navy Battleships 1886-98 (illustrated by P. Wright, F. Rodriguez, A. Gilliland), Osprey/New Vanguard 2019
- Leeke: Jim Leeke, Manila and Santiago: The New Steel Navy in the Spanish-American War, Naval Institute Press, 2009
- Newhart: Max R. Newhart, American Battleships, Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1995
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Phillips: Kevin Phillips, William McKinley [a volume in the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.], Times Books, 2003
- Trask: David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898, University of Nebraska Press, 1981 (I use the 1996 Bison Books edition)
- Weems: John Edward Weems, The Fate of the Maine, Holt, 1958 (I use the 1992 Texas A & M University Press paperback)
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